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Issue Date:  March 5, 2004

Abandoning hope sets us free from fear


Forget about hesitating,” says Bob, my instructor in Kendo, the Japanese art of sword fighting. “Abandon all fear.” We grip our shinais, swords made of bamboo. Standing about six feet apart, we point the tips of our swords toward each other’s throats.

Bob wants me to charge, to go for his head, which is caged in a mask called a men. We are not samurais; we are not fighting to the death. The strikes that we practice -- blows to the head, the wrist (kote) and the torso (do) -- are but elegant brush strokes, mere signatures of ancient Japanese warrior arts.

-- UPI/A.J. Sisco

“But you’ve got the experience,” I tell Bob. “You’re going to get to me first.”

My padded hands squeeze the sword even harder. I command them to arc upward but nothing happens. Earlier today, my hands went rigid when they were supposed to be moving a pencil across a page. My demon: If I can’t be perfect, I don’t want to do it. Perfectionism affects even my spiritual life: If I lack the faith others seem to have, prayers die in my throat. In dismay I peer at my teacher through the bars of my mask. He has conjured all my shadows, which is what Kendo should do, given that it is an art, not a sport.

I want Bob to offer me technical advice. But he won’t do it, he’s on to me. Instead, he tells me, “Abandon all hope.”

The right words at the right time can act upon the universe like a prayer of exorcism. The core of my being softens. I push off with my left foot, which is barely visible beneath my sweeping blue hakama. My body, though it bears the weight of my armor, is in flight. Too late. Bob’s sword reaches my men first; the metal sings. But so what? My very cells are dancing. This is how it feels to abandon all hope.

Bob has me repeat the motion again and again. Each time he shows me how to do it better. “Hold the center,” he says. The tip mustn’t veer even an eighth of an inch off its trajectory. A practitioner of Kendo devotes endless, often frustrating hours over a lifetime to such drills -- all for a few minutes of Keiko, or combat, when we see if what we’ve learned has migrated from our minds to our muscles. The idea is to keep from giving an opponent an opening. One or two times I manage a clean blow.

I take a vow. Each time I sit down to write, or to pray, I will abandon all hope. I will push forward with my pencil, or with my Our Father, flying and falling and flying again. I will worry less about what I am trying to say and pay more attention to what the practice of writing is saying to me. I will worry less about the strength of my belief in God -- and rest in the knowledge that it is enough that s/he believes in me.

Demetria Martinez is the author of three collections of poetry and a novel, Mother Tongue.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 2004

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